29 June 2016 11:36:47 IST

Goodbye, anonymity

You can run but you can’t hide, thanks to face recognition software integrated with social media

Four years ago, during an interaction with this writer , research superstar and trend hunter Jan Chipchase had outlined a scenario where you see someone walking in a hotel lobby and get curious. You decide you want to know more about him/her, so what do you do? You could whip out your phone, take a picture, and have information about the person on your device in a matter of five seconds — all thanks to facial recognition software.

“What do you think is the world’s most recognisable container of information? It’s the human face. We are constantly reading each other and responding,” said Chipchase, who was a usability researcher with Nokia, and an executive creative director of global insights at Frog Design, before launching his own research, design and innovation consultancy.


Well, Chipchase certainly got it right. Earlier this year, an app was launched in Russia that has completely bedazzled everyone — FindFace. As the name suggests, users on FindFace can photograph people and the app will figure out their identities. Its success rate is 70 per cent.

How does it work? Well, the app is linked to Vkontakte, one of the most popular social networks in Russia, with around 350 million users. FindFace’s developers have projected many uses for this app, including helping the police identify faces of criminals in crowds, helping people pick out suitable dates, and so on.

Google and Facebook too have facial recognition softwares in their applications. You would have noticed how, when you upload a picture on Facebook, it automatically tags quite a few names. Google Photos too has a built-in facial recognition, and an Android phone or iPhone can visually identify people.

How it works

So how does the software manage to do it?

According to the explanation on Facebook , it uses an algorithm to calculate a unique number, based on someone’s facial features such as the distance between the eyes, nose and ears. This number or template is derived from pictures in which people are tagged.

Suppose you refuse permission to be tagged on Facebook photos, the software may not be able to create a template for you and consequently, not be able to automatically tag you.

However, neither Google nor Facebook has made the technology mainstream and put it in the hands of the users like FindFace has.

Raging debates

Fierce debates are now raging about whether this technology is good or bad. It’s an anonymity killer for sure. Civil society activists in Russia are a worried lot as the State can now identify protestors.

And it’s creepy too. Imagine if somebody wants to know something about you, all he/she needs to do is take a picture of you and your identity will be available to them! In the case of FindFace of course, the identification is possible only if you are a member of Vkontakte.

Going by its reception in Russia, people seem to be loving it. The app was launched in February, but got great traction in April when a photographer Egor Tsvetokov took pictures of strangers and got the app to identify them. He even published these, trying to make a point on totalitarian excesses.

Ironically, his pictures only made the app go viral, with it getting 450,000 downloads.

In today’s world, and the way technology is moving, if you have a phone in your hand, it’s simply impossible to be anonymous. You might as well give up.

If you want to know more about facial recognition, watch this video.